Why Do Store-Brand Package Graphics Appear Cheap?

We’ve all been to the supermarket and sometimes comparison-shopped for quality ingredients per money spent. Economically, this is wise. Especially if the ingredients are comparable and taste of the food is at least close to the brand-name item you’re accustomed to buying.

Some items are easier to compare-shop. The two cereals above are practically the same, and one could venture a guess as to who the manufacturer of the Great Value brand really is. After all, it’s widely known that big name brand producers make many store branded foods by contract. This helps both the producer and the discount store: the producer extends its manufacturing volume and therefore its profit, and the discount store has a supplier and still makes a profit on the subsequent sale. They both win.

But the graphics on the containers—either boxes, plastic bags, or cans—is not the same apparent design quality, as exemplified above. (One discount retailer—Aldi—does have decent quality graphics on their packages, a definite departure from other discount stores, but Aldi sells very few SKUs that are not their own brands. They are basically a proprietary retailer.)

Look at the two boxes above. From a design standpoint, they aren’t even close, except for one thing—color, an important detail (see below). The fonts used are way different, including the different sizes. Those fonts are expressive and more dynamic on the General Mills package, including the fact that they’re on a diagonal, an attention-grabbing quality. The photo on that same box has action—almost motion—going for it, with the cereal sitting on acrylic “milk”, and more than probably retouching. Even the gluten free violator has more pizzazz than almost anything on the Walmart box.

Is this kind of quality design hard to do? Of course not. But store branded items generally look drab, almost generic against the national brands.

Why do you suppose this is? Is it because discount chains have a tight budget and don’t want to shell out extra money for the design process and review? Or is it that some imposed differentiation is in the mix between the higher-end producers and the low-end retailers?

According to Tim Harford, an English economist and journalist who writes for Britain’s Financial Times and the BBC, it’s entirely intentional. The cheaper looking packaging is there to get the most from the buying public. Shoppers are smart and know by looking at the package that they’ll get comparable food at a lower price, simply because of the lesser design. And the discount retailer knows this as well, banking on the fact that what’s in the box is the real difference—to them, none.

By aiming the packaging at the price-conscious buyer, they’re fulfilling what makes this work for them—price targeting. The budget-minded consumer doesn’t have to spend several minutes grazing the store aisle, comparing categories for the best item on their shopping list. Especially if the store brands are right there next to (or more probably the next gondola down the aisle) the big name brands. Shoppers can see what they need in plain Helvetica (or Futura, above). And apart from color, which is relational for recognizability, the discount store brands really do need to differentiate themselves readily from the big name brands. And the larger the category, the more chance you’ll see store brands for it.

Thing is, doing store packaging is harder for a good designer to do. Going through design school, a student is taught the nuances of designing to different social strata. And designing for a premium-minded retailer becomes a self-flattering exercise, because designers will use fonts that are more expressive and even decorative, then build those into rich colored backgrounds with beautiful photography and dynamic graphics. Those are then the penchant, the driving force in that designer’s pride of production, what he/she seeks to pack into his/her design portfolio.

And then to step down—in the real world—and design for a store brand, well, that’s just not fun by comparison. Sorry, Walmart.

 

What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

(This column originally ran in March of this year. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

Design Awareness and Visual Conflict

(This column originally ran in December 2017. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

I write this column to make readers—both designers and non-designers—see design, both good and bad. I know the title I chose for this article sounds maybe a little goofy. I mean it isn’t like “autism awareness” or anything along the lines of life defining circumstances. Design for most people doesn’t mean much.

Unless of course it involves things that impact movements and functions that people encounter during the course of their day. And for them, that means ergonomics and features of things they use. Things like electric shavers, cell phones, coffee makers, or an automobile. If the comfort level of that usage to them is low, then they perceive the design of those items as bad. And they’re right.

Non-designers might say something like, “This doesn’t feel right.” But to a designer, tactile sensations are just one facet of design. Visually, they can sense right away if something is wrong. Because designers can feel something just with their eyes.

It’s a matter of the overall design they see, usually in the mix of elements. Each element by itself may be sound, but joined with other elements—even if each is sound on its own—can easily set up a visual conflict. This can easily be seen in interior design, which I’ll get to in an upcoming article, but certainly in any ordinary plain design, be it on the web or in print.

Above are two examples that illustrate this: logos of furniture stores near where I live. Both places sell high quality furniture. And both designs use a script font and at least one other roman font. But one of the logos has the bad mix I just mentioned, not to state the obvious. The thing is, they don’t see it.

What makes things like this possible is the availability of graphic design software to anyone with a computer, and that means that some who have the opportunity to make their own designs will try to do so without understanding what makes a design successful. Either that, or someone in a company might envision a design in their mind, then instruct a designer to make what that someone imagined.

It doesn’t matter. The end result is what counts, and what counts here is readability. The thicks and thins of the Baer’s script B, overlaid with the ultra fine lines of the other fonts, set up a visual mess.

Unlike some designs, a company’s logo has properties that should promote the name and focus of that company. This is the face of the company, their best foot forward. Although Baer’s logo has a flowery appearance that may reflect their beautiful store interior, the fact that you can’t read it shouldn’t reflect the store’s focus. Nor should it detract from the store’s accessibility.

Bacon’s design has similar elements of the other logo, but here the designer (or non-designer?) knew when to stop short of visual conflict.

 

Newer Is Better

(This is a repost from the original back in January. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

Why does a company introduce a new package for a seemingly ordinary line? Can’t they use an existing brand and indicate that it‘s new?

Well, yes (sorry) they could. But it wouldn’t have the impact that a brand new line would. Remember, good design has impact. And in packaging, impact is almost everything. Without it, a package will die on the store shelf.

And there‘s nothing like a brand new package for a brand new line in a food company‘s pantheon of products. They can make it whatever they want to be: new graphics, new photography, new colors, new copy, new name. They can make the PDP, the primary display panel, anything they want. In this case, that front of the can, it can be anything they need it to be, that endangered 40% of the label.

Campbell‘s new line of soups has a catchy name. Well Yes, of course, refers to “wellness”, one of those words I feel is kind of dumb, like “tiredness”. But no matter. It works here, and the semi-freeform design of the name works, also. Especially sitting as it does on the label. And the flavor SKU sits right below it, and the photo of the main ingredients sits right below that. 1, 2, 3. Easy and direct.

And this new label treats the consumer like he/she has a brain: there’s no “beauty” shot of a bowl of soup on the front. Don’t need it. Everyone knows what a bowl of soup looks like. It’s the ingredients that count. And the label has plenty of areas denoting what the health information is, mostly in a large and easy-to-read panel on the back.

They have fourteen SKUs in this new line (so far), all without artificial colors or flavors. Campbell’s says each has “purposeful” ingredients. And that, of course, is in line with the relatively recent wave of consumer-minded things like “organic” and “non-GMO” tags you see on food packaging. But in this new line, not all are non-GMO ad none are organic. Some are delineated as vegetarian or vegan, according to their ingredients. If you’re looking for protein or fiber, they have those, too.

So it’s new. And it’s different (part of what Campbell’s calls the Sage Project). And Campbell’s knows that if it’s new and has that impact they need, consumers will see it, pick it up, and read the label. And because the design is friendly and informative, and having all those friendly ingredients pictured right there, people will buy it. Yes, partly because it’s Campbell’s—a name we trust. But the design really carries it.

And the large “Yes!” in the name is instantly inviting. It has an intrinsic, positive vibe. Everything in the design (and ingredients) is positive. It’s no wonder that Campbell’s decided it had to be a new line. It was such a fun thing to do.

 

 

 

 

Art is Always Design

Last week, I reposted an article from months ago, entitled “When Design is Art”, citing examples of design so eloquent in their movement of shapes and color that they became art. Today I‘m flopping that mindset.

Ever think of art as design? It is, always. Painters paint with motion of the brushstroke and movement of the paint on canvas, but also from emotion. That emotion is evident in the shapes they create and the color they use. But it‘s all design: shapes and color, dark and light. The painting doesn‘t have to depict a realistic form. In abstract art, it doesn‘t depict anything other than itself. It‘s pure design.

In art school, we learned two-dimensional design using abstract shapes as subject matter. Those exercises taught us how shapes relate to each other as well as organization of those shapes in a design. In another course we learned color and how to manipulate it to create tonal flow in a composition.

But in those respective classes we skipped something. Although we were taught how to design using shapes and how to modulate color within a composition, we did not touch on emotion, the passion of the painter and the reactive element of the viewer.

And that‘s been in the back of my mind for weeks. You know, there‘s been a lot of talk about AI lately—artificial intelligence—and how our lives will be impacted by its use and replacement of human input in mechanical, or repetitive, situations. But what struck me about it was a few things I‘d read that told me how it could be taught to recognize emotion.

According to psychtastic.com, abstract art contains shapes and color that create feelings in the viewer‘s eye and mind immediately: negative feelings brought about by dark and irregular shapes, and positive feelings brought about by bright colors and simple or regular shapes. This is no real surprise.

How often do you sense foreboding in a movie whereby we follow the camera moving through a dark and dingy house (The Silence of the Lambs)? Or the sense of joy when we see Julie Andrews atop a bright meadowed hill (The Sound of Music)? This is easy.

So I kept searching for connections between AI and emotion and hit on a study by the University of Trento (in Italy). In that study, computers were fed the reactions of 100 people looking at abstract paintings of various colorations. Afterward, the same computers were fed scans of new paintings not from the original focus group. The computers were able to predict, with roughly 80% accuracy, the reactions of the same group of people.

And answers began to appear as to why a dark blue blob of paint evokes sadness, whereas red squiggles evoke anxiety.

Not totally revolutionary, but it certainly looks like AI will eventually get there.

The thing about shapes and color is this: it‘s all based on associative experience. As human beings, we learn from our surroundings, our falls and injuries, our taste of sweet or bitter food, our hearing of music or screams. Happenings can be pleasant or jarring. And all of those experiences are felt as colors and shapes within the mind‘s memory, socked away in our subconsciousness. This is why all of us, when shown an abstract piece of art or design, either like it or dislike it.

It can be a painting or just a simple doodle. It has things in it that remind us of something buried in our experience, no matter how simple.

I‘m not a psychologist, but what else would explain it? If you were doing an abstract painting, how would you depict serenity on a canvas? Would you choose pastel colors with smooth brushstrokes? What about violence? Would you use bold dark colors applied with slashing brushwork, maybe thrown paint?

This is art, designed for emotion.

 

When Design Is Art

(This is a repost originally from January 26. Dan Blanchette is taking the week off.)

I was watching some of the events leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics the other night, and observed the beautiful forms made while the skaters performed their ice dancing. And if you’d ever watched ice dancing, you know that it is not like other olympic endeavors. It takes immense skill and strength, no doubt, and supreme discipline—after years of effort and practice. But that’s just one facet of it. The other is the art it makes.

That’s right: it makes art. Right there in front of you, a performance like ballet. The forms, the shapes and colors, all done in performing just in that one occasion. Like watching a watercolor move across the paper in the succeeding brushwork, creating a picture.

Design can be art as well. Thing is, there’s just so much out there that is not art. Take consumer packages: most are merely functioning as information on the shelf, with little or no beauty to them. But every now and then you see a package that approaches a certain essence of perfection, letting your brain, through your eyes, see the art in it.

Like those ice dancers who show things like repetitive shapes and synchronized movements and lines, you’ll see the same things happen in the artful packages. The Microsoft folding mouse packaging above shows that. It’s so simple: it takes a simple shape and repeats it, inverted below, as a semi-revealing window. It shows how the mouse folds. Charles Eames couldn’t have done much better in designing his forms in furniture. The elegant lines of the mouse itself almost demanded a good design here, and the package designer did not disappoint.

Zealong’s tea packaging is a good example of using the name to inspire a shape: a diagonal in its dieline to emulate the “Z”. How simple and yet elegant this is. And the colors—just black and lime green—bring out the contrast to enhance that dieline.

Maybe some companies need to look elsewhere for design inspiration the next time they want to redo their packaging. Maybe nature provides some input, like the shapes of leaves or flowers. Maybe it can come to a designer in the shapes of industrial items, like automobiles or furniture. Typography can be a source. Or maybe it can come from watching sports.

You can’t say those things of all packaging out there. Only a small percentage show it. That elegance, that shape, those lines. That art.

What Makes for an Upscale Food Label?

Food labeling is an area I’ve been around for a long period of time, design-wise. But that experience, even though it has given me a lot of insight into the business of selecting imagery, directing photography, and working with marketing teams, seldom melds with the abstract clarity of academic design.

And that clarity is usually what is sacrificed in most companies’ obsession with cramming information onto the primary display panel (PDP) of the label, that which faces shoppers at the store shelf.

We’ll use the above images of pasta sauce for this rant today. Simplicity is something that design students (should) learn early on to achieve beauty and clarity in their design assignments. And once they learn that, and then go out into the real world, they also learn quickly how fast that simplicity disappears.

Getting right down to the essence of this is the marketing department falling in love with the graphics on that PDP instead of letting the colorful beauty of their food, showing through the glass jar, speak for itself.

What isn’t necessary is the over-colorful descriptive information beyond that. Yes, tell us what it is; no, the added photography is not a requirement (unless the packaging is opaque, such as a box); and further, the colorful panels behind the type (including the background) can easily be way too intrusive. In a word: cluttered.

The label at left has that cluttered feel, and it’s heavy. The colors tend to choke together because they’re close to the same density, value-wise, except for the light blue. But the black behind that panel, although it unifies the panel elements, ties it all way down. Even the cap, echoing the black color, adds to the weight of the colors.

Then there’s the choice of typography, which is too “everyday”. The semi-primitive font is OK, and it might work much better against a lighter background, but here, because of the heavy colored panels, becomes a tad clumsy. The label has an ’80s feel overall, and that period had a lot of bad labels.

The label at right has a much cleaner feel. The white of the label tells you right away how uncluttered it is, how simple it is, how honest it makes what’s inside the jar look. The label has fewer colors and needs no photo. Its straight up-and-down orthographic alignment’s only real embellishments are the decorative panels left and right, not too light or dark, but echoing the color of “parmesan pomodoro”, and the small but centered script G in a circle, letting you know the quality of the food from Giada de Laurentiis, marketed by Williams Sonoma, like a small but important fingerprint.

All that makes for an understated, yet well-thought-out assembly of design. The gold cap adds a feel of quality, and the security tape is a further premium touch.

The problem most all marketing departments have is not letting go of their dear promotional ideals, that selling to the customer at the store shelf. If they’d allow their focus groups the latitude of comparing what their product actually looks like against premium competition, they might learn something.

And looking like premium doesn’t cost anything.

 

Stylization and Primitive Artwork: What’s the Difference?

Above are two examples of illustration we see these days. One is an example of stylized artwork, the other an example of primitive artwork.

First, let’s turn the clock back to, say, 1985. The artwork on the left would be regarded as stylized. It would’ve worked back then as a serio-comic solution to a depiction of “Eve”, and would’ve been accepted as having been done by a professional artist. The artwork on the right wouldn’t have been accepted for print at all.

Now let’s vault ahead to present day. The artwork at left is still viable as a professionally done piece of artwork, but the one on the right is also acceptable as having been done by a professional. Why is that? What changed?

You tell me.

Stylization has been recognized in illustration for many decades as a way to add whimsy to otherwise realistic drawing. The proportions in stylized artwork are exaggerated to a point where everything—such as features on a face, or hands and feet on a figure— still has recognizability and familiarity of the basic forms of, in this particular case, anatomy. Stylization has uniformity of style: the curves and lines of all the forms look and feel natural to the characterization of the total figure.

On the other hand, primitive art has no such cohesive properties. All of the above descriptive issues are missing in primitive art. The artwork at right looks and feels as if it were done by a 5-year-old. And yet, readers, it was used in a recent issue of a well-known publication, The New York Times Magazine.

Stylization in illustration requires an understanding of basic forms in nature, man-made objects, and yes—anatomy. Anatomy of all creatures, animals, birds, and humans. That basic structure is what makes stylization possible, what makes the departure from that basic anatomy work.

Jazz musicians, even rock musicians, understand that improvisation—stylization in their discipline—has to have the basic form, the basic structure of melody in any tune or song, in order for it to exist. That basic melody is underlying everything they do, maintaining a cohesive unifying theme.

So it is with stylization in artwork, in illustration. And yet, here we are, watching primitive artwork, as done by what are now referred to as “professionals”, get published in reputable publications.

I don’t know when the departure from realism or stylization to primitive artwork began to take place in print. Using childlike depictions of people in serious thought-provoking articles is baffling to me, to people with any intellect. Children don’t read these articles, nor would they comprehend their meanings.

We celebrate—as a society—accomplishment in any discipline, be it playing a musical instrument well, cultivating a beautiful garden, making a delicious meal. We don’t reward clumsy or awkward endeavors. But here we have a well-known national publication using—and paying for—crude artwork.

That example at right does not reflect—to any degree—a professional’s hand in its creation. And yet by using it in a magazine like The New York Times, the publishers were actually celebrating its primitive appearance—its crudeness—as being a style.

And that, readers, is the real difference. Because, whether it was done by a “professional” or a 5-year-old, it doesn’t matter. It looks like it was done by a 5-year-old, and a 5-year-old doesn’t know what style is.

Does The New York Times Magazine know?

————

(I recently wrote to the president of a well-known art and design school, to ask if anatomy and realistic figure drawing were being taught at that school. It’s been several days since I sent that email and I have a strong feeling I won’t get a response.)

This Is Ridiculous

My wife and I were watching television several weeks ago when we saw the above ad for Schick’s Hydro Silk TrimStyle razor for women, which is made for those women who wear bikini swimwear.

We couldn’t believe our eyes. “Are you kidding?” we said almost simultaneously.

Television has come a long way in its permissiveness. I can remember watching shows back in the late ’50s and early ’60s where Ozzie and Harriet and all the other married TV couples slept in twin beds, because studios weren’t allowed to show them sharing the same bed.

That was part of an era in Hollywood governed by The Motion Picture Production Code, a period of time between 1930 and 1968. Often called the “Hays Code”, it deemed what was morally acceptable for public audiences to see in movie theaters. Will H. Hays was the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and under his leadership, the MPAA began its strict enforcement of that code starting in 1934.

Hollywood, in its early days of making silent pictures, had its share of scandal with the murder of a famous director (William Desmond Taylor) and the alleged rape of a starlet by the famous actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Religious and political organizations were appalled at the apparent “wild west” atmosphere of the fledging motion picture industry, and with the Black Sox scandal in Major League Baseball (having of course nothing to do with Hollywood), and the rise of bootlegging and gangsters in the 1920s, the Hays group felt it necessary to impose its moral rules and keep Hollywood “clean”.

After World War 2, television came into its golden period. (Television was actually invented in 1925 by Philo Farnsworth; Philco, Westinghouse and RCA developed their machines in the ’30s, but the formative television business didn’t get off the ground until after the war ended.) Hollywood wanted to get into television for two reasons: one, as a hedge from the upstart TV business—couples were staying home and raising families and not spending the time going out to movies; and two, since they already had the production facilities, why not make TV shows and cash in by having advertisers run commercials just like the radio industry?

Of course, with the Hays Code already in place, the same rules applied. Anything morally suspect was not allowed. A long list of items was spelled out, such as illegal trafficking and use of drugs, inference of sexual perversion (subject to interpretation by a committee), vulgar language, miscegenation (sex between black and white races), any depiction of venereal disease, and a man and a woman in the same bed. The list was way longer than that and included showing white slavery, rape, branding of people or animals, surgical operations, and gratuitous brutality of children or animals.

It took many years for Hollywood—whose star system faded in the 1960s—to loosen its grip on the code. Morals were changing, and the public (and younger directors) wanted realism on the screen. European movies had long reflected an open and less restrictive genre, so the American studios began to relent. By the 1970s, TV shows came of age.

There was, however, one last vestige of the Hollywood code: the Family Viewing Hour, the first hour of prime time TV each night, that enforced similar rules. Established by the FCC in 1975, it felt it had to enforce “family-friendly” programming from 8 to 9 PM EST. But it didn’t last long. The Writers Guild sued, citing violations of the First Amendment, and won.

But what about censorship in TV commercials? I mean, the commercial above is not crude pictorially, but it is suggestive and more than repugnant to some viewers. Look what we have today in TV ads: erectile dysfunction, condoms, birth control devices, bladder control, IUD issues, catheters, etc. The medical industry loves all this. I hate seeing it, but there they are.

I know the Schick ad is about beauty and/or hygiene, but the way it’s depicted is a little out-of-bounds.

Apparently there are no rules. Advertisers are censoring themselves, keeping what they individually feel are within—or just barely within—moral guidelines.

I wonder what the commercials along this line will be like in another twenty years.

The New Illustration

I subscribe to The Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the history of this country. It has thought-provoking articles written by really good journalists. And it has what might be labelled fair art accompanying those articles.

Other publications have good artwork as well, like The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Tomkinson created the image on the left for The Atlantic. It’s a more traditional style of illustration, requiring some actual draftsmanship. The artwork on the right, created by Ryan Snook for The New York Times Magazine, has a much different style.

What’s the difference? And why are they so different? And how do they affect the viewer?

Sure, Tomkinson’s piece accompanies an article about an actual person, Abigail Allwood, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Snook’s accompanies an article called “Crying at Movies”. But the art director at The Atlantic must’ve felt strongly about using an illustrator whose style was toward realism, whereas the person calling the shots at The New York Times Magazine probably said something like “anything goes”.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the decline of teaching actual drawing and illustration in art schools, which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I mean, things like anatomy and perspective were taught alongside figure drawing when I was in art school. Those things weren’t absolutely necessary for painting disciplines, but they were for commercial illustration.

So I’m open to discussion about why drawing is no longer considered a necessary attribute when it comes to creating qualitative commercial illustration, although I have my own theory why that is.

You see it all the time these days, the newer styles: much more like expressionism than realism. Expressionism plays to emotional reaction. As history will tell us, expressionism in painting came about after the impressionist period in the last portion of the nineteenth century. Impressionists taught the world (or those who visited art galleries and went to art openings) a new way of seeing. And that way of seeing was with your inner eye—meaning your brain—and not so much with your logical, or outer, eye.

Expressionistic art was also done in a time of upheaval in the world: the breakdown of the gilded age of kings and queens, the revolutions in Europe, the world wars. If you’re at all a student of art history, you know of art imitating life. Broad brush strokes (often with a lot of contrast in color), faces with garish angularity, and almost primitive proportions were characteristic of the form.

Snook’s illustration is very cartoony. But you don’t have to look far to see some work done that is not quite so funny in depicting emotion, and much more emoting tension—even anger.

My theory of why this is all prominent now in publicized artwork is that we live in a very changing world. A global economy (with several nations having proprietary resources), tensions around the world (knowing that now many nations have nuclear capability), strong climate changes, immediate news on TV and the Internet. Twitter and Facebook promote reactive activity. Maybe I’m wrong. But something has spurred things along to where commercial illustration is now, to where it reflects all that noise.

There are other factors possible: younger generations have different ideas of seeing the world in art; and for everyone, using computer apps and plug-ins can easily take a photo and transform it into an illustration or even a painting, with textures and warping the perspective. Why would you need to actually draw it first? Is that why we no longer need to teach it?

Because when you think about it, how would you teach a student to think in expressionistic terms? Maybe to them, realism is just too superficial.